I’ve reframed my picture of ageing this holiday

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Four years ago: my mum, very capable at 69, Balmoral beach, Sydney

We all dream of a picture perfect holiday, with white sands, blue beaches and most importantly away-from-it-all. My holidays in Brazil have had a good deal of perfect moments but I certainly didn’t get away from the catastrophes of living. It’s been very confronting to see how much my mum has aged in the last 12 months and hard work to let go of the idyllic view I held of ageing.

The vision I had for my parents in old age was dotted with time for rest and reflection and opportunities to do things they didn’t do when we were young but this simply didn’t eventuate. Of course I was conscious that ageing is a period of decline but I didn’t think my mum would walk the downhill road in her seventies. When dad’s life was cut short eight years ago I knew things were not going to be as rosy as I had pictured them but I was still positive about mum’s ageing. My expectations were reinforced when she came to visit us in Australia four years ago, on her own and full of vitality. Unfortunately I think that trip marked the beginning of her decline.

It’s been emotionally painful to see that the wonderful chef my mum once was can no longer cook a nice meal and the avid storyteller lacks the desire to entertain her grandkids with tales of a bygone era. Mum hasn’t been diagnosed with any age related illnesses but she has endured debilitating spinal problems, hearing and memory loss. She feels frail, alone and at times frustrated with her situation.  When I was growing up anger was a feeling I rarely saw mum displaying but she has a much shorter fuse these days. When I met my mum in this condition I felt a deep sense of helplessness and I wasn’t able to sleep for several nights thinking of ways to help her change her situation.

So, since arriving in Brazil I’ve read a good deal of articles about ageing parents and learnt a bit about the harsh reality of the elderly – the chronic health problems, increasing frailty and social isolation. The suffering of the elderly can be so severe that it can lead to depression and even suicide. In fact, suicide rates around the world are higher for people over 70 than any other age group.

In my eagerness to help I’ve made a few well intentioned suggestions and recommendations that were not interpreted that well by mum. When you lose your independence and control you become very reluctant to change. So instead of creating more friction and stress I’ve decided to change the one thing that I can control: my view of ageing. I have now accepted that my mum is no longer self-sufficient and that the parent I once depended on is now increasingly dependent on me and my siblings.

Once I was able to accept my mum’s ageing as a fact of life and something I have little control over I started to sleep well again. I’ve adjusted my expectations so as to lie within the realm of what is possible and as result improved my relationship with mum. This doesn’t mean I’ll sit down and watch my mum wither – I’ll still do what’s possible to relieve mum’s suffering but I’ll be mindful of her limits, feelings and desires.

These holidays I tried to get away from it all but found myself right in the middle and coming to terms with our mortality and shared vulnerability. It certainly hasn’t been the picture perfect holiday I expected but definitely one I will never forget.

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